Ryan Holmes is one to watch among Canada’s high-tech hotshots. HootSuite Media Inc., his fast-track social media management company, has more than 8 million users in 175 countries, and the world’s biggest corporations are among its customers.
What drives him is not just the thrill of building an international category killer. It’s also laying a foundation for a critical mass of like-minded visionaries. He has committed to keeping the five-year-old company in Canada. And he’s fostering other startups to generate opportunities for future risk takers – opportunities he hopes will discourage our country’s entrepreneurial talent from heading south.
“Silicon Valley is overflowing with ex-pat Canadians,” he says. “We’ve lost some of the best and the brightest. And I think that we’ve lost talent that is going to be hard to bring back to our country.”
Mr. Holmes believes Canada has an obligation to work harder to retain the people it educates so they stay and contribute to creating a vibrant economy.
Another motivation for building his company here? He likes living the life. With employees on four continents, he has much opportunity to travel. But the quintessential West Coaster always likes coming home.
“I love getting off the plane and just smelling the air,” he says, when asked about his dedication to Vancouver. He appreciates skiing, snowboarding and other outdoor activities, as well as the region’s ethos of work-life balance. (There’s a well-used yoga studio at company headquarters.)
Recently, along with fashion innovator Meredith Powell, he announced a foundation called the Next Big Thing, which will offer 10 budding entrepreneurs ages 18 to 22 a bursary of $10,000 and six months of mentoring at HootSuite.
The response has been encouraging, he says, with submissions in the areas of retail and tourism, as well as technology.
“We don’t have a thesis as to what the right kind of business is,” he says. “It could be the next killer app, or it could be an amazing concept that would revolutionize the lemonade stand. We just want to see kids who want to do big things.”
Mr. Holmes, 38, was once a kid who wanted to do big things. After his parents went back to the land in the Okanagan, he worked around the house’s lack of electricity by powering his computer using a car battery. He founded a paintball company while still in high school and then a pizza-by-the-slice company.
He spent a couple of years at a regional college and attended the University of Victoria’s international business program.
The classroom, however, was not for him. Mr. Holmes, who describes himself as an “experiential learner,” needed to be out in the world doing business rather than studying it.
So he moved to Vancouver to join an Internet business, where he learned valuable lessons. In 2000, he founded Invoke Media, a Web services company. When Invoke began working on a social media dashboard for companies and individuals to manage the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google+ all in one place, HootSuite was born.
And HootSuite has never stopped growing. It has almost 400 employees and counts among its customers 744 of the Fortune 1,000, including brands such as Siemens, Virgin and PepsiCo. They use HootSuite for such things as launching marketing campaigns, distributing targeted messages and managing team workflow.
As successful as he is, Mr. Holmes believes he could have gone farther and faster if he had had the kind of financial help and mentoring that he now seeks to provide young people.
He may not have had venture backing, but he was certainly on the right track from the start – the paintball company is still going strong.
There’s no magic recipe for creating a successful company, he says. The main thing is deceptively simple – coming up with a product that people want.
Meanwhile, he’s spreading the word that Canada’s educational institutions should do more to encourage students to pursue careers in technology to counteract the dearth of computer programmers and engineers that is plaguing the industry – and which he expects to become worse in the future.
Regarding venture capital, another area where Canada lags behind the U.S., Mr. Holmes sees more hope.
“It’s better now than it ever has been,” he says. “But it can get better. It takes successes that people can point to, to help build that story.” Like HootSuite, which snagged a venture placement of $165-million in August.
Mr. Holmes is often asked about whether he plans to take HootSuite public, but he says he’s in no hurry. Going public tends to bring more suits, more rules, more bureaucracy – and fewer pets in the office.
Mica, a pooch Mr. Holmes rescued from the pound, still comes to work with him every day.
“She has been a great companion for the last 12 years,” he says. “We have a lot of dogs here, and everybody loves it.”